Category Archives: Reviews

Cat Wars Book “Review”

Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer by Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella

Every now and then I find a book that I really want to bring attention to. This is one of those books.


My plan was to do a book review here, but as I read through it, engrossed by its pages and the sound, scientific, and reasonable arguments being made – even though yes, it’s most definitely preaching to the choir here – I struggled to find a way to synthesize this into a standard book review. There’s just too much stuff that’s too important.

This book needs to be read from cover to cover, by anyone and everyone who cares about birds…and yes, truly cares about cats as well. So I failed, really, at a comprehensive analysis. I am left to simply urge – no, implore you – to read this book, from cover to cover. It gives a history of the cultural ties between humans and cats, and the problems that have arisen from cat domestication.

One particular passage really stuck out to me though:
“A majority of ecologists, ornithologists, and millions of bird aficionados see outdoor cats, whether owned or unowned, as killing machines. Many biologists are convinced that predation by this invasive species is indeed contributing to the catastrophic downward spiral of many bird and mammal populations. The tens of thousands of well-meaning people who nurture unowned cats, and the millions of domestic-cat owners who let their cats outdoors, all value these animals as sentient beings. They view them as part of the landscape, as much an element of the natural order as trees and clouds. Some in the cat advocacy world say, “We are a nation of animal lovers. We are not a nation of cat people or bird people.” Yet there is a conflict between cat advocates and bird advocates – a war, quite literally to the death in the animals’ case, whether or not the cat lovers or bird lovers will admit it.”

So yeah, did I mention I think you need to read this book?

(Plenty of copies are now in stock here at Freeport Wild Bird Supply)

Book Review: Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin

By Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny, and Bob Montgomerie

This was an impressive book. Impressive in breadth, width, and, yes, weight. In fact, since I often read in bed before falling asleep, one of my biggest concerns was nodding off and having the book fall on my face. Its 524 pages would have easily broken my nose!Ten

Luckily, the writing made me anything but sleepy. While this is not a “curl up on the coach and read cover to cover on a cold winter day” book, it is exceedingly well-written for what is essentially a text book.  The authors have amassed a mind-boggling amount of information covering a range of ornithological topics.

Although the scientific study of birds can be traced back to ancient Greece, ornithology has really come of age in the century following the revolutionary work of Charles Darwin. A fascinating factoid in the preface mentioned that “in 2011, there were as many papers on birds published as there have been during the entire period between Darwin’s Origin (of Species) and 1955.”  Wow!

As noted in the Preface, there are several other compilations of ornithological history.  I will readily admit that when I first learned of this book, my first thought was “Really, another one?”  But this one is different.

They chose to begin with Darwin for good reason as “nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution.”  But no book could cover every aspect of ornithology; not everything we’ve learned could fit in any one volume. I’d break my back lifting it before I could break my nose dropping it.

Therefore, the authors narrowed down the focus to the highlight of ornithological research that has “influenced the course of scientific progress.” They explain the rationale that included ranking a database of citations and a survey of senior ornithologists. In the end, the authors decided to synthesize things into a topic-based series of chapters, guided by their findings of the most influential researchers and books:

Chapter 1: Yesterday’s Birds – a synopsis of the discovery and analysis of the first birds, and the history of the now-dominant “birds ARE dinosaurs” theory.

Chapter 2: The Origin and Diversification of Species– the evolution of these 10,000 or so birds that we share our planet with.

Chapter 3: Birds and the Tree of Life – the difficult process of figuring out which birds are related to whom and how.

Chapter 4: Ebb and Flow – about migration, the topic in the book that was of most interest to me personally.

Chapter 5: Ecological Adaptations for Breeding.

Chapter 6: Form and Function – the study of avian physiology: how birds do what they do and the evolutionary processes that shape the birds of today and how they exploit their specific niches.

Chapter 7: The Study of Instinct.

Chapter 8: Behavior as Adaptation.

Chapter 9: Selection in Relation to Sex – what birds look like and why. Spoiler alert: it’s about sex.

Chapter 10: Population Studies of Birds.

Chapter 11: Tomorrow’s Birds – what does the future hold for bird species, populations, and survival in the face of humanity and our changes to the planet?

So there’s a fairly wide range of topics, and each topic is covered in depth. There’s a lot of research into each topic and the players involved. A graphic timeline of important events and publications are included in each chapter, almost as a tour guide for the events and people in the coming chapter, or a “Cliff-Notes” version for convenient skimming. What is really remarkable about this tome however, is the very personal approach the authors take. They intentionally attempted to avoid a dull, boring history book.

“…Our experience teaching undergraduates show us that histories were brought to life by stories about the people that populate them. The history of ornithology is overflowing with extraordinary individuals and intriguing stories. Science – ornithological or otherwise – is conducted by real people with real human attributes, including ambition, integrity, jealousy, obsession, and deception. In telling their stories we encounter the full gamut of human frailties from fraud to murder.” 

No, this is not your run of the mill dry, boring textbook. The authors make it personal, and make it engaging by emphasizing the people involved. They want you to not just read about discoveries, but join the researchers as they make them – and embroil in controversies surrounding them. As exemplified by this passage in Chapter 3, “Birds on the Tree of Life”, the authors were not shy about delving into issues of these controversies:

“The first volley in what David Hall would later call the ‘Systematics Wars’ had been fired – the 1960’s and 1970’s would see one of the most contentious periods in the history of any branch of science. While not everyone likes this term, to those of us looking in from the outside, systematics at the time seemed clearly at war, as egos and emotions ran high, and the field seemed to attract some of the most arrogant, opinionated, and downright nasty individuals who have ever called themselves scientists.”

In other words, the authors were more than willing to call a spade a spade and that is refreshing; sugar-coating of controversies was held to a minimum. I loved that. Prosaic and engaging writing keeps the reader interested, and allows the non-scientist to absorb the wealth of information.

History is important, and the authors teach us the value of understanding ornithological history in order to 1) see a researcher’s own work in context, 2) knowing what predecessors have done is an “essential part of scholarship, and at the very least helps to avoid reinventing the wheel, and 3) Perhaps most importantly, “it can be a crucible of creation, triggering new ideas and new ways of looking at old problems.” And the authors went to great lengths to make this needed task as engaging and interesting as possible, and I believe they succeeded.

Each chapter includes added color with an autobiographical vignette from leading scientists, and closes each chapter with a “Coda,” that briefly summarizes what we have learned about the topic and how it applies to current research and why this particular topic is so important. Often, the authors include additional color-commentary as well and perhaps even a little opportunity for some brief opinionated editorializing.

I am not an “ornithologist” by any definition, and while the term “field ornithologist” could be applied to my previous career, I am not an expert in the rigorous science of any of these topics. Therefore, I would not be able to comment on any biases, any missing information, oversights, or errors within the information presented. I am most definitely a student of migration, however, and therefore found Chapter 4 to be the most interesting and valuable to me, and very well done.

I would argue that Chapter 11, however, is the most important, but unfortunately, I found it to be the weakest chapter in the book.  While every other chapter came across as very well laid out, planned, and thorough, I found “Tomorrow’s Birds” to be scattered, at times superficial, and sometimes even a little awkward as the authors skip from one topic to another. That disappointed me quite a bit, and it was a tough way to end. Perhaps it was nothing more than so much new information to be covered, that a sample was the most reasonable option, rather than the through surveys of the preceding chapters.

However, the last two pages of that final chapter, wrapping up the past, present, and future of birds and the study thereof, were poignant and valuable.

“Topics of interest will come and go, but there is one topic whose relentless progress should be of concern to us all. As the human population continues to increase, bird populations will continue to decline. Birds provide a convenient indicator of the quality of the environment, but they also contribute immensely to the quality of the environment and of our lives…A century from now, if someone decides to repeat our survey of the preceding hundred years, it is unlikely that they would be able to use the title  – Ten Thousand Birds…The long-term health of birds and other wildlife depend on teaching our children and students to value the natural world, but it also depends on our training them to be both effective ambassadors for ornithology and first-rate scientists, so they are able to make the right decisions.”

(As with all books reviewed in the blog, of course it is available here at Freeport Wild Bird Supply!)

Book Reviews (Feb 2014), Part II


Part I, which includes The World’s Rarest Birds, Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record, and Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson can be found here.

Rare Birds of North America by Steve N.G. Howell, Ian Lewington, and Will Russell.

This long-awaited and much-anticipated book “offers the first complete synthesis of the occurrence and distribution of” every vagrant recorded in North American through July of 2011.  These birds aren’t necessarily rare in a global context as with “World’s Rarest Birds” but they are most certainly rare in the United States (not including Hawai’i) and Canada.

The meat of the book is the species accounts, covering 262 species from around the world.   First and foremost – and certainly the most eye-catching aspect – is the artwork.  This book marks North American unveiling of the remarkable artwork of Ian Lewington, and for many readers, it will be the first introduction to one of the best bird artists of our time.  Simply put, the plates are gorgeous.  The birds appear amazingly life-like, yet technically sound.  There is a lot of detail, but they are not exaggerated schematics. In addition to be a sheer joy to look at, they are incredibly accurate and useful depictions that will go a long way in aiding identification, especially in cases where they are  – and fostering appreciation.  For many of these birds, these are the definitive drawings, and in some cases far surpassing the rendition in those species’ “home” field guides.  The traveling birder will gain a lot of information from studying the plates in this book when heading to that respective corner of the world.  Some of the best and most helpful plates are when similar species are painted side-by-side (such as with many of the albatrosses) and/or on adjacent pages (as with Willow Warbler, Common Chiffchaff, and Wood Warbler).

For each species account, there’s a short analysis of world distribution, North American records and their patterns, and a discussion of taxonomy. The catch-all “Comments” section includes discussions ranging from origin and patterns to unanswered questions. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed the various postulations about patterns and provenance. And last but certainly not least is the “Field Identification” section, which might be one of the most important for people who want to find these rare birds.  If you think you have discovered a new state record, this is probably the first place to go to confirm your identification, for example.  I found it quite helpful when “similar species” were thoroughly compared, although at times, I felt that the authors skipped over potential confusion species, especially when those confusion species were very real and regular features of birding discussions (i.e. domestic waterfowl and bona fide Graylag Geese; considering how often domestic geese are reported as true Graylags, it seems ridiculous to claim “Similar species: none if seen well.”)  But these complaints are relatively few.

My one over-arching quibble with the text is simply a pet-peeve of mine: the use of counties as the sole reference to rare bird records.  I have no problem with the specific locations of the records being left out (the ABA Checklist is a quick and easy place to find that info) but it seems to me that counties are one of the least valuable references.  Perhaps out West, where counties are the size of eastern states, this reference is more useful from a geographic standpoint, but in many parts of the East, in our small counties with irregular borders, many birders probably don’t even know what county they are standing in at a given time.  So why not be just a little more specific?  For example, when looking at the entry for Variegated Flycatcher, type in “York   County, Maine” to Google Maps or your favorite mapping website or software.  OK, you have an idea as to where in Maine the bird was.  Now, type in “Biddeford, Maine,” the town the bird was in.  I bet it won’t take much time (especially after reading the intro material!) to picture where this bird probably occurred – that long, narrow peninsula that sticks straight out into the water…yup, that’s where the bird was.  In other words, towns/townships/territories (or counties in unincorporated areas when necessary) provide a whole lot more information and more specifics with little additional information, space, or even typed characters: In this case “Biddeford” is two characters shorter than “York County” but provides a significant amount more of information and relevance geographically.

While the vast majority of the book is the species accounts, the introductory material is far from superfluous. In fact, it should not be missed.  In addition to the utilitarian aspects of using the book and defining exactly what a “rare bird” is, the instructive sections “Migration and Vagrancy in Birds” and “Where do North American Vagrants Come from?” are chock full of useful and interesting information about the mechanisms and geographic origins, respectively, that produces the “Mega” rarities that birding dreams are made of.  The “Molt and Aging” section is a concise introduction to this complicated topic, but one that is often important to identifying vagrants and their origin.

I must, however, disagree with their use of the term “reverse migrant” in the section “Migration and Vagrancy in Birds” to describe what is more accurately referred to as “180-degree misorientation” or “reverse misorientation” (which the entry confusingly uses in a couple of instances).   Reverse migrant is usually used to describe an entirely different phenomena where birds – from few to massive flocks – undertake a seasonally-opposite movement based on local and current conditions.  For example, a warm spell in the fall might cause thousands of swallows to move north along the west coast, or a cold snap could send Red-winged Blackbirds in a southbound retreat in spring.  These are not “mistakes” by a few as misorientation suggests, but rather a coordinated response to seasonal conditions and its impact on food supplies, regardless of age and experience.

This book is a must-own for any student of vagrancy and rare birds, and it helps to teach everyone how to find more rare birds.  Meanwhile, birders of all levels will simply appreciate flipping through its pages and marveling at Lewington’s artwork and the unbelievable diversity of species that is out there waiting for us.

The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History by Richard J. King. (University Press of New England, 2013).

I saved the best for last. In fact, this is one of the best natural (and cultural) history books that I have read in quite some time. Various species of cormorants are found on all continents (yes, including Antarctica) and in all corners of the world, we find these birds to be vilified, hated, and sometimes even cherished.

The author seamlessly integrates fascinating hard science and extensive research with personal anecdotes from his cormorant-centric travels around the world. At the same time, he explores the interaction between humans and these birds.  From the sacred cormorant fishing in Japan to the guano deposits of Peru, we see how cormorants are an important part of some cultures.  On the other hand, from the catfish farms Louisiana to the stocked fishing holes of England, we see how people have come to misunderstand or even downright hate – and often woefully mis-manage – cormorants. The author does an excellent job of remaining objective even when explaining human actions that seem completely insane and inane, but strives to educate the reader about the realities – including when the realities are negative for the cormorant.

During the course of the year, the author follows the life of the Double-crested Cormorants breeding on a small island in Long Island Sound, through all of the trials and tribulations of surviving in a cruel, unforgiving world.  In between, he travels the globes to get to know others species on an intimate level, from spending time with researchers to visiting museums.  I particularly enjoyed his self-deprecating and humorous portrayal of his visit to the Natural History Museum in Tring, England and his travels through the population and species of the “blue-eyed shag group” of the sub-Antarctic, a trip that I have had the privilege of experiencing.

Personally and professionally, I find myself often defending the cormorant, rejecting the vitriol directed towards it. Heck, we even have a giant photograph of the face of a Double-crested Cormorant on our dining room wall: a face that includes a vivid turquoise-green eye – that I feel is one of the most beautiful colors in the world – and the bright and vivid orange facial skin and gular patch that contrasts magnificently with the dark black feathering, the dirty gray and flaky, “ugly-looking” imposing bill.  In other words, I was exceptionally happy when a friend of mine handed me a copy of this book.  It’s a fair treatment of the cormorant – and like most things, when nature is treated fairly, the natural world – including its cormorants – is defended.  I guarantee you will have a new-found understanding and appreciation for this remarkable group of birds.

Of course, most of these titles are available at Freeport Wild Bird Supply, and a shipment of A Devil’s Cormorant has just arrived and is the featured “Derek’s Choice” at the moment.  Also, look for our next installment of “Birds, Books, and Beers” to feature Will Russell, co-author of Rare Birds to take place in early May.  More on that soon.

And speaking of new, “must-have” books, the new and completely updated Sibley Guide is coming out in March!  We’re currently taking discounted pre-orders here at the store.

Book Reviews (Feb 2014), Part I.


I don’t usually review books in this blog, but there has been such a plethora of offerings recently that deserve a word or two. We are most definitely in the Golden Age of bird books, from field guides to natural history tomes to coffee-table picture books. Like many birders, I read a lot more in the winter, and this winter has provided ample opportunity to stay inside with a good book – at least between visits with Snowy Owls and white-winged gulls! This is what I have been reading of late.  I’ll post it in two parts.

The World’s Rarest Birds by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still (Princeton University Press, 2103).

Wow, simply wow. Sobering and inspiring, exciting and depressing, this is a comprehensive treatment of the 590 Endangered and Critically Endangered species from around the globe – the world’s rarest birds. Increasing awareness is the first step to improving the conservation odds of many of these poorly-known and highly imperiled species.

515 photographs plus 75 paintings cover each species, and each species entry includes estimates of population size, threats, and a paragraph of interesting and important natural history information. It’s impressive to just flip through the pages and marvel at the wonders of avian diversity, but then to step back and contemplate the myriad of threads that will dictate whether or not future generations will have these birds to marvel at.

Each biogeographic region begins with a stunning photograph before getting to work, with pages dedicated to geography, conservation challenges (general and specific), threatened bird hotspots, and a summary of the most threatened bird families. The introductory material to the book is equally chock-full of valuable information, including yet more stunning photography, discussions of each of the threats, and calls for conservation.

This book is a must-have for all birders and any nature lovers who care about conservation and appreciate the wonders of biodiversity. And hopefully, inspire you to act to keep this list from getting any larger.

Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record by Errol Fuller. (PrincetonUniversity Press, 2013).

In contrast to The World’s Rarest Birds, this is not directly a call to action. For these 28 bird and mammal species, it is too late. They are gone. Extinction is forever. One could easily get depressed from reading this book, and it is a real challenge to fight off some tears, especially when reading the supportive text that explains the circumstances of the species extinction and the last known photos. The photographs are evocative, and Errol’s engaging and accessible text tells a small part of the species story for posterity.

I particularly appreciated his blunt but accurate assessment of the false report of the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Hope is a great thing, but hope is not science.  I sure do hope that this bird still exists, but there’s no scientific evidence that it does. False hope is not always helpful, and takes conservation attention – and funding – away from the existent species that need it the most.

The final section of the book is an appendix which features artwork of some of the birds featured in the book whose photographs are of low quality.  There is something about a photograph – an actual moment in time caught forever on a piece of film – that is more haunting than colorful artwork showing a species in its full glory.  Considering many of these birds are painted by referencing specimens (which in some cases added to the journey to extinction) doesn’t help, either.  However, some of the art is truly fantastic, and historical in their own right…and certainly part of the stories of these lost species.

It’s important to learn and understand history so that we don’t repeat it. There are 590 species in The World’s Rarest Birds that could conceivably end up in the next edition of this book. Are you willing to let this happen without a fight?  I for one, most definitely am not.  Lost Animals can be taken as nothing more than a history book summarizing some of what is lost.  Instead, I hope you will be motivated by it and help to prevent a second volume.

Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson by Elizabeth Rosenthal (The Lyons Press, 2008).

Yes, this is an older book, but one I simply never read until recently when a friend passed on a copy. Roger Tory Peterson (RTP) was a revolutionary. Without him and his field guide(s), many of us would not be birders. Like many birders, I started with a “Peterson’s,” and he was the single inspiration for the next several generations of birders, bird artists, and field guides.

Exhaustively researched, the other chronicles the life of this great man. In addition to being an artist, birder, and photographer, he was also an inspiring conservationist.  Like me, if you consider yourself a “fan” of RTP, you need to read this book to find out more about his remarkable life.

Unfortunately, I found it a real challenge to get through, despite my desire to learn more about him. The book is overwhelmingly a compilation of quotations from people who knew RTP or were inspired by him. While this was quite interesting, I found the extensive use of quotes – including nearly page-sized block quotes with small italicized font – a bit of a challenge to read and follow. More paraphrasing and synthesis of the quotes in the author’s gentle prose would have made this an easier read.

I was also left looking for a deeper dive into RTP’s creative process, including how he goes about his art, his chosen materials, and his philosophies. I also felt the bias in the book was slightly overwhelming, such as what at times felt like an attempt to give RTP nearly sole credit in beginning the conservation movement (yes, he was a large part of it, especially in an indirect way) and the book basically blew off his critics and detractors as mere “haters,” which for the most part is unfair.

RTP is worth knowing, understanding, and appreciating – and this book will definitely help you do that.  My criticisms are mostly based on a style preference, and although I found it very hard for me to read and get “into,” the wealth of information kept me motivated to the end.

In Part II, which I will post next week, I’ll review Rare Birds of North America and The Devil’s Cormorant.